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The Devil Is in the Denial

The religious, who possess only tacit knowledge of the pragmatic truths inhering in religion, should be forgiven their occasional intellectual backwardness, for the same reason we forgive the idiocy of someone who recently suffered brain damage in a car accident. The religious today are still in a state of cognitive whiplash from the scientific revolution.

A great deal of what the devout feel is no longer expressible in terms they can justify, but this is because science updates fast and wisdom updates slowly. Wisdom is a crystal leftover from that which goes fast and fails. The scientific revolution is a supernova that is still exploding; religion, as encoded wisdom, will never "keep up with" what is explosive, even if — for all we know — it turns out to be vindicated after the dust has settled.

In their whiplash, those who insist on the truth of religion despite modernity are often guilty of misdirection. Rather than give science all of its due and admit the consequences, the religious often insist despite their rational conscience (telling themselves this is the meaning of "faith"). It seems to me that if, despite everything, there remain honest religious people today, then they would have to admit that the epistemic character of their own religiosity is itself an utter mystery. Obviously, it was never justified by science but now it no longer even enjoys the social conditions for its traditional functioning as an extra-rational social-pyschological structure. It's hard for me to see how religious experience today could be something other than the experience of making no sense, which does not mean there do not still exist real religious people or that one should not be religious—it only means that if a religious person today makes too much sense, I doubt them. One may believe in God, but this belief is weak indeed if one cannot also admit that God is dead. These cognitively aligned religious types, these blessed souls who make good sense to themselves, it is as if they have closed their eyes to the empirical phenomena that can be summarized as the murder of God, which would mean their faith is little more than willfully out of date information.

Mary punching the devil in the face (13th century). Credit: ChurchPop, Public Domain via the British Library.

Insisting that God is not dead in a world in which God has been killed, tends to manifest as a neurotic dissimulation of unstated instrumental motives (and it often is). The religious are correct to be religious, I believe, but they tend to dissimulate on the grounds that only the human folly of overzealous science has made them wrong, and so it is just and true for them to ignore human follies as if they have not occurred, even if those follies have in fact taken over many national majorities the world over. The stubborn dedication of the devout is impressive but unfortunate, because it contributes to the impression that science is "right" and religion is "wrong," at best a dubious symbolic game that's not exactly up front about its real cognitive-emotional character, probably serving some ulterior purposes. Faith that does not confront the death of God is a signal that falls beneath the noise-gates of all modern communication.

The devil is winning, and the religious are failing to update, because the religious are too devout to let themselves be as wrong as they truly are. Allowing oneself to be wrong is a necessary precondition for updating; coming to terms with the degree to which science has rendered religion wrong, is a precondition for religion to determine how its truth might once again be correctly expressed.

Theology and experimental method

I think tomorrow morning I will take the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). It will be the first time for more than 15 years. Why not? I will do it with absolute sincerity, but also reflect on it afterward as an experiment I am conducting on my being.

High-IQ rationalists often look down on religion, but does scientific rationality not obligate one to conduct experiments with religion? To reject religion on a rational-scientific basis, without periodically varying your exposure to religious treatment, is to make inferences from what a social scientist would call a truncated independent variable. If your phenomenological database has zero cases of religous treatment — if there’s no variation on your independent variable — then your model’s predictions for its dependent variable (the estimated rationality of religious commitment) are likely to be biased.

Multiple heuristic equilibria (cognitive patchwork)

If we are living through a “semantic apocalypse,” a likely implication is that the signal-to-noise ratio in most explicit political debates is not only lower than it might seem, but asymptotically approaching zero. The differential value or accuracy of true news vs. fake news, or smart opinions vs. dumb opinions, is increasingly slim relative to their shared arbitrariness and inadequacy with respect to the complexity of our environment.

How, then, do we regenerate heuristics for our intentional cognition that are aligned with our systematic, scientific cognition?

While there is only one true reality, there exists almost an infinite number of conceptual registers in which one valid scientific model can be stated. In short, there exists an extreme nominal arbitrariness to scientific models. The register that ultimately gets selected as the recognized register is a function of intellectually non-justified criteria: social forces (e.g., marketing considerations), individual psychological forces (e.g., personality-contingent word-choice preferences).

All of this suggests to me that the most promising path at present is small-scale efforts of world-creation, in which strategically arranged social and temperamental forces are leveraged to generate novel heuristics for intentional cognition in a scientifically disciplined fashion.

“Scientifically disciplined” is very different than “scientific.” Groups can think, say, and do almost any number of things in a fashion that is scientifically disciplined, without any of it being scientific and without the different groups necessarily converging or accumulating as science does.

At the core of being scientifically disciplined is simply admitting what you don’t know, which anyone can do.

Being scientifically disciplined still permits the widest variety of the most fantastic inventions–so long as they don’t pretend to an epistemic status they do not really possess.

What this means is that we could very well see a huge number of multiple cognitive equilibria: a variety of small groups that generate radically different heuristics for thinking about each other, sustaining internal order, and productively interacting with the outside. They might sustain the flourishing of members and the health of the community equally well, with insanely different conceptual registers, behaviors, and affective tendencies. They could all be equally scientifically disciplined and therefore calibrated to the complexity of reality, with seemingly no convergence or accumulation in their “findings,” or internal wisdom.

This itself is very hard to process given our intuitions about what it means to be scientifically valid. Our intuitions about science and empirical validity make us feel like pursuing the truth and understanding how society really works should look, sound, and smell like a bunch of people trying really hard to arrive at a certain set of shared words through a difficult and combative process of testing and critiquing different individuals’ and group’s proposals or hypotheses. This is the hitherto socially selected image of science, selected due to contingent factors related to Modernity (centralized institutions, progressive metanarratives, etc.). But it is not at all what it means to live an authentic life that is scientifically disciplined. What that looks like under postmodern conditions still remains to be seen.

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